Mastering audio, personally, has been my final skill to learn at SAE. The rest of the trimester and next tri will be refining skills we’ve already learned and incorporating them into our own professional works flow. We’ve discussed in and out of the box techniques, and have been reminded that we’re always working for the product and not ourselves. We’ve discussed making tracks the best they can be, and used in the box plugins by iZotope to clean up tape hiss, vinyl crackle and excessive noise bought up by compression. It’s a common belief that the mastering process can ‘fix’ a bad mix, however mastering is as much about final EQ and compression choices, as it is adhering to international guidelines, loudness standards and ensuring a product is ready for commercial release.
With the rise of digital audio services such as Spotify, iTunes and Bandcamp, it’s important to provide a client with a product that fits the criteria that Apple and Spotify require for a digital release. This includes providing the client with mp3s for digital upload, WAV files at different sample rates for digital upload, and DDP files with song and artists’ names for CD release. It important to keep in mind the mediums people are using the listen to music, but not necessarily mix or master to cater to it (e.g. Apple headphones, phone speakers etc.) Some further research into mastering led me to the below interview with Mandy Parnell, at Black Saloon Studios, who really drives home the important of proper file management, and international standards for delivery of audio products. Mandy discusses the gear she uses to master, such as the EMI console at the heart of her workflow, the signal flow/s she uses, and how she caters to different clients and the important of a few important pieces of gear such as her Prism convertors.
A big part of the delivery of audio product are the expectations for perceived loudness and how this differs to amplitude. The last 20 years have seen the battle for loudness become a big part part of our expectations of recorded audio, and mastering engineers work to deliver loud masters that compete without compromising the integrity and clarity of a mix. The louder we expect audio, the harder it is to retain that clarity without losing dynamics, the nuances of a performance, image and space of a mix. A big turning point for me was having Jo Carra from Crystal mastering speak to the class about his experience in the audio industry. Jo began his career by printing cassette tapes and was a part of quality assurance. Jo’s attitude and approach to mastering speaks volumes about his successful career, having been one of the most successful mastering engineers for 20+ years, having worked with big name international and Australian artists alike, such as The Waifs, Bloc Party, Augie March, Courtney Barnett and Eddy Current Suppression Ring. Jo’s attitude is all about serving the song and the project, but also keeping up with current trends and industry expectations. Jo has been around for the entirety of the ‘loudness wars’ and has continued to deliver loud masters that retain clarity and feel of the original mixes. Jo discussed his approach to in the box and out of the box approaches, and this all depends on the subject material and/or the clients expectations. Jo also discussed that mastering is the last technical stage of a product, and treats his job thusly. He remains focused on quality assurance and ensuring the product is 100% the best it can be. He endeavours to avoid mastering creatively, unless the client specifically asks or he sincerely thinks it will help the end product.
As part of our mastering classes, we learned a few skills that I thought would be impossible to do to a stereo mix. Some of these tricks included turning the snare and vocals up or down in a mix despite only having access to a two track mix. A lot of these tricks use tight EQ and mid-side processing, a technique I’m been experimenting with after finding a free mid-side plugin from HOFTA. Mid-side can be great, especially for pop music where a big vocal is needed to cut through. For rock and metal mixes, however, I’ve discovered stereo/left and right processing works as to retain the width and weight of a big rock mix. Similar to mid-side processing, we learned about stereo wideners which can be used to further emphasise the space in a stereo field (e.g. making space for focus on the centre). A wide stereo image can detract from the punch of certain signals as sounds become less focused or become thin. Further to these tips and tricks, mastering classes have also driven home how important it is to have a great mix. This may seem obvious, but many assume mastering is a saving grace. In some ways it can be, but you’ll never get a great master from an average mix, and a really great mix doesn’t need much mastering at all. These skills are great, however, despite my not being a mastering engineer, it’s still important for me to deliver ‘loud’ mixes to clients for review or that will be their first bit of feedback.
In conclusion, the mastering classes have not only shown me the tricks that mastering engineers can and do use to master a track or album, but also he expected deliverables for a band or mastering engineer alike. As an engineer focusing primarily on recording and mixing, it’s important to deliver tracks to a mastering engineer that they can begin work on right away.